Earning a Doctorate While Working in the Nonprofit Field

Kristen Vogt Veggeberg, MPA, Ph.D (c) offers insights on balancing work, life, and getting your doctorate while working in the nonprofit field

As of December 2019, I have a Ph.D, and like many of my associates at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I worked full time while finishing my doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction in the College of Education.

Are you thinking about pursuing a doctorate yourself? Great! 

Do you want to do it while working full time? 

A lot of academics will tell you this is a massive no-no, and while they’re not incorrect (which I will cover later), it can still be done. Here’s what I can tell you from what I’ve experienced, before you take the GREs and resign yourself to a rewarding, but possibly challenging, lifestyle.

  1. Understand the question that you want to answer: I love Kim Tallbear’s statement on this (mentioned during an interview on the All My Relations podcast). Earning a doctorate because you loved school and loved the topic you undertook is a wonderful sentiment, but one that I would not recommend. Passion burns brightly but burns people out too. I’ve unfortunately seen many brilliant undergraduates who adored school take on graduate school, and after experiencing the workload, the challenging feedback, and competitive cohorts that graduate school can bring on, slowly fizzle out and leave their programs. Unlike a Bachelor’s, a Master’s, or even an applied doctorate (such as a EdD or PsyD) there is no clear ending to a PhD until you have successfully defended your dissertation, which is the definitive statement of a question you seek to understand and better comprehend, using the research skills and data you have collected throughout your academic experience as a doctoral student. Earning a doctorate isn’t about happily floating from class to class, your head engrossed in good articles and lively scholarly debate (this does happen, but less than you’d imagine, sadly) For many, this involves a lot of research, both collaborative and independent, and your interest may get sidelined for someone else’s, if you are attached to a certain professor’s research. Trust me: I saw a graduate student who started in my department wanting to study museum exhibits end up studying computer science applications, due to her adviser’s insistence. Additionally, knowing that there’s a question you must answer, and you must obtain items and skills in order to do so, becomes the driving force that almost always ensures a finished degree. For me, as the director of an informal STEM program that seeks to encourage curiosity and equity across the spectrum of learners in our society, knowing how people spoke about their experiences in education would help me better understand the role that my nonprofit could possibly have on them. I had my passion, yes, but I had (and knew) the question that my now-finished doctorate is helping me tackle.

  2. Understand what you want to use the doctorate for: One of my committee members loathes this mindset, which he writes off as ‘positivistic’, as do other academics who adore the somewhat antiquated concept that all post-secondary education is for learning for learning’s sake. While this is a noble ideal, it is not practical for the vast majority of many who finish graduate school in order to enhance their careers. Ultimately, the PhD is conferred as the highest degree a university can offer, and as a result, research and teaching are expected out of those who earn this degree. For many nonprofits, having a professional on staff who can better gather, analyze, and use data to help write grants and display the results of their impact on the greater world is crucial to their survival. For many professionals (myself included) the ability to quickly turn out papers and research showing the impact that a program has had on a population can be the difference between obtaining a massive foundation grant, or not. Is it research in the purest, most academic form? No. But is it useful for nonprofits? Incredibly so. I genuinely dislike this divorce of altruism and academia, but I do not invent these concepts, merely comment on them. As mentioned above, pursuing a doctorate for the sake of knowledge is lovely, but not recommended for the working professional.

  3. Understand what expectations are of the university: Some universities are getting with the program, per se. They know that a monastic lifestyle of the mind is not possible for every student, especially those who need to work to support a family or those who are anxious about a non-academic lifestyle after they graduate, including many nonprofit professionals. My department at UIC offered night and online classes for graduate students, in addition to tuition waivers. It was also expected that a student would be gathering their data form their professional sources, such as the school they worked with or the populations that their program served. This helped working students (myself included) to complete their doctorates and keep their careers at the same time. However, for subjects that require intense amounts of work within laboratories (such as physics or chemistry), or that need field work that demand travel (such as biology or anthropology), the traditional path of academia is a necessary one. If you can not devote yourself to your research, the university generally can not find room for you. This is an unfortunate side effect of academia, but one that’s hard to challenge. Professors expect you to contribute to the expanse of knowledge in your subject, which will require articles to be submitted to journals, academic conferences to attend, and paperwork (such as IRBs and committee recommendation forms) to be completed. If these are not possible for you as you work in the nonprofit field, this may not be the best path.
  4. Understand what needs to be done: The exact rules of how to obtain that precious degree deserves its own subsection, but here’s some quick things one should know if you think it’s the right fit. First, be organized, from your online files to your notebooks to your work schedule. Being able to have all these things in order while juggling a busy schedule is crucial, and gives one the additional advantage of a check-list to make sure that all of the work, both professional and academic, is being completed on time (I can’t emphasize this enough. I’ve seen people get massively side-tracked on their degrees due to missing paperwork!) Additionally, be on top of things. I know of too many students who were set back in their studies due to always trusting the people working with them. Remember, the graduate school coordinators, the professors, the other students—they’re busy folk, and while you are important, you may not always be at the top of their priority list. Finally, know when to say no to certain things. Graduate school, especially at the doctorate level, has many opportunities waiting for you, ranging from symposiums, to amazing networking events, to even contract and job opportunities. However, it’s also extremely easy to spread yourself too thin, especially if you are working and studying full time. Take it easy on yourself!

I’m extremely glad that I worked and finished my doctorate: it allowed my career (and bank account!) to blossom while studying and while I may have not have the same academic opportunities as some of my peers, I know I will be able to apply my skills successfully in a myriad of different fields.


Dr. Kristen Vogt Veggeberg is the director of STEAM and Innovation for the Chicago area Boy Scouts of America, and a recent doctoral graduate from the University of Illinois at Chicago's College of Education, where her research focused on the issues regarding equity within informal science education and urban students. A Chicago native, she has worked as a nonprofit professional for the past 10 years, including in museums, nonprofits, and universities.